The following essay first appeared in Achgut.com on September 18, 2021, and appears here with the permission of the author. Translated by Russell A. Berman, with comments here.
From the very start of the pandemic, corona and climate change have always been mentioned in the same breath. Indeed, the parallels are unmistakable. In both cases it is a matter of invisible threats from natural phenomena. In both cases, the discussion is shaped by scientists with data and modelings that are difficult to follow, as they demonstrate the need to limit personal freedoms. In both cases, large parts of the population submit to these prohibitions and limitations on freedom. In both cases, we have seen radical movements emerge, like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, and Zero-Covid, that demand even more extreme measures, reminiscent of charismatic conversion cults and chiliastic sects. In both cases, “deniers” and “skeptics” are denounced as dangers who stand in the way of preventing a catastrophe. After the COVID lockdown, a climate lockdown will take place, with the one transitioning into the other seamlessly.
Niklas Luhmann distinguished between system and environment. The social system “society” only includes what is communicated inside the social system. “Climate” and “corona” are in themselves not part of society, but the communication about them certainly is. The manner in which they are discussed tells us as much about the society that addresses them as do the communications concerning natural phenomena. The communication about climate and corona displays religious elements. In the climate and corona politics we find four classical figures from the history of religion:
- moral guilt
- religious sacrifice
- the distinction between pure and impure
- divine revelation
Corona and Climate Change in the Service of Morality
Corona and climate have found such a strong resonance because they fill the vacuum that classical religions have left behind. The Bible already named catastrophes and plagues as punishments for moral failings, most prominently the ten plagues that God imposed on the Egyptians to punish them for enslaving the Israelites. This ancient narrative has lost none of its epic strength. When the rivers in the Rhineland overflow their banks or the pandemic infection numbers rise, the explanation is sought in moral failings
Inattention to the wearing of the obligatory mask or not maintaining social distancing, as well as unnecessary long-distance air travel for recreation and leisure or excessive electricity consumption, or in general our “false living” in the West—it is all wrong because of the inherent enjoyment of life, the “materialism” and the consumption that characterize it. In addition, there is heresy, the falling off from the “true belief” by “skeptics and “deniers,” who undermine the grand moral purification through their doubts. For this we are punished by God, i.e., in the pantheistic understanding of our time, by “nature,” that sends us viruses and diseases, floods and droughts.
Because corona and climate are treated as divine punishments for sin, these problems cannot be approached pragmatically or practically. It is pointless to try to avoid corona fatalities or to avert the climate catastrophe without simultaneously extirpating the “sin.” Morality is not at the service of the fight against corona and climate change, but on the contrary, corona and climate change serve morality. Pragmatic initiatives, such as protecting at-risk groups with tests in nursing homes or the expansion of a carbon credit system or the development of nuclear energy might reduce the fatalities and carbon dioxide emissions; but they do not contribute to reaching the real goal: the moral purification of society—and for this reason, such practical steps are largely ignored in Germany.
Simple Solutions are Immoral
Obligatory masks outdoors, the speed limit on the Autobahn, and the surfeit of prohibitions and climate regulations are, in comparison, relatively ineffective, but they serve the genuine purpose: forcing the individual to repent. To put it bluntly: simple solutions are immoral solutions. For a solution to be regarded as a moral one, every individual must bear a burden and participate in the suffering. The only possible rescue from certain destruction—so that we do not face divine punishment, as did Sodom and Gomorrah, and that we are not forced into the long march through the wilderness of the desert, as were the people of Israel after the dance around golden calf—the only path is submission to the societal injunction, the subordination of individual desires and needs to the interest of the community, the path of renunciation and repentance.
The politicians’ call for willing sacrifice, exertion, denial, and subordination falls on psychologically fertile ground in the face of the catastrophe. For there is a universal phenomenon of humans who, in the face of a threat, respond by imposing limitations on themselves and inflicting themselves with pain. This ritualized masochism can take various forms: the flagellation processions of the Middle Ages in response to the Black Plague or the so-called finger sacrifices, in which people underwent amputations to ward off catastrophe. To use a mask to deny oneself fresh air outside, to avoid human contact, and to put oneself under house arrest, cut off from social life—these all meet the criteria of a religious sacrifice.
The Same Behavioral Patterns as Our Ancestors
The positive response to the lockdown in large parts of the populations is indicative of the fact that in our secular, post-heroic society there is an unfulfilled desire to offer sacrifices because sacrifice is simultaneously a form of self-exaltation and revaluation. This primitive religious-psychological mechanism is operating in Western societies. No matter how we try to convince ourselves that our civilization rests on the rational foundation of the Enlightenment, the political practice and social behavior of broad sectors of our society prove otherwise. We are caught up in the same atavistic behavioral patterns as our ancestors; we have just given them a somewhat different form.
The scholar of religions Walter Burkert even claims that the widespread character of these rituals of penitence plausibly points to a sociobiological basis. Humans have an inner need for renunciation, limitation, and self-punishment, all the way to physical and psychic mutilation, that becomes active when we face danger, be it real or invented. The corona restrictions and climate politics are not supported by such a majority of the population despite their limitations on normal life but rather precisely because they do limit it. They thereby satisfy the deep-seated spiritual need for “sacrifice,” “repentance” and “submission.”
Absolute, No Longer Questionable Truths
These genuine causes of the catastrophes, the moral failings and the transgressions against divine commandments, are, as Burkert puts it, apprehended by the “knowing” mediators with a transcendent diagnosis. They in turn provide the rationale for the religious rituals. These “knowing mediators” are, for example, saints, prophets, and priests. We find these archetypical figures again today. There is the “pure virgin” in the form of the saintly Greta Thunberg; the world-renouncing ascetic Karl Lauterbach; and the priesthood represented by Christian Drosten and Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber. Instead of appealing to divine revelation, they invoke science, which however practically fulfills the same function. Franz Werfel’s novel about the prophet Jeremiah bears the title Hearken Unto the Voice. For Greta Thunberg this turns into “listen to the science.” The religious echoes are evident.
That science today is viewed as the source for the justification of existing morality and not as a tool for the pursuit of disinterested knowledge is shown by the fact that its results are only widely accepted when they legitimate existing political and moral convictions, not however when they call them into question. When Thilo Sarrazin, for example, based his theses on the hereditability of intelligence on current scientific research—even submitting it for review by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which in turn confirmed that he had described the science correctly—he could not have his claims accepted; on the contrary, the science was called into question. “Science” will always be invoked as an authority when its results support the hegemonic discourse, not however when it challenges it.
Politics and the public do not expect “science” to provide new knowledge nor to examine existing assumptions—and certainly not to overturn them—but rather to confirm existing views and norms. The “scientist” in the corona and climate crises is not playing the role of a researcher, reporting results in a value-free manner, following Hume’s dictum that the ought should not be derived from the is, i.e., that ethical norms should not be derived from scientific knowledge. Instead the “scientist” has become the herald, the warner, and the voice of conscience, that is, those functions that in another age were carried out by priests. “Science” in the Western world has become a substitute religion. Climate and corona models, as the ultimate justification for the rules of social order, lay claim to the role of divine revelation, the source of absolute, unquestionable truths.
Dividing the World into Pure and Impure
In addition to the search for “moral guilt” and religious sacrifice, climate and corona politics include a third universal psychological mechanism, the separation between “pure” and “impure.” In 1966, the British anthroplogist Mary Douglas (1921–2007) published her famous book Purity and Danger. Douglas believes that the “imaginations of separation, cleaning, limiting and punishing transgressions had the function above all of systematizing an un-ordered experience.” The separation of the world into pure and impure produces order in a disordered world. It is typical that this separation of pure and impure refers to invisible dangers. The threat comes from an imperceptible world that reaches into the world of visible phenomena.
The parallels to the predominant corona and climate angst are clear. Both COVID-19 and CO2 are invisible phenomena, associated with the ideas of pollution and contamination. In place of spirits and demons, we now have viruses and greenhouse gases. As in archaic societies, the answer involves purification rituals for the whole society. The separation of the vaccinated from the unvaccinated is a matter of separating the pure from the impure. The same holds for the differentiation between the “clean energy” of the wind and the sun and, on the other hand, fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Similarly vegan diets, separating types of trash, disinfections, and masks all belong to today’s omnipresent purification rituals.
The corona crisis and climate change are enabling new forms of social disciplining and the imposition of the priorities of the collective over and against the individual, including ostracism, exclusion, punishment, and the marginalization of all those who resist this social disciplining. Western societies are no longer held together through kinship relationships as in traditional tribal societies, nor are they based on coherence via the identification with an ethnic-national collective. The legitimacy of social rules no longer involves reference to a classic religion. Corona and climate policy together represent the ambitious effort to provide the de-nationalized and increasingly atomistic global society with a new goal, direction, and order on the basis of an expectation of salvation and apocalyptic versions of the end of times, all with a pseudoscientific grounding.
1) Greta Thunberg is the Swedish environmentalist activist, born 2003, who has been especially influential in Germany through the “Fridays for Future” movement. Karl Lauterbach, since 2005 a member of the Bundestag from the Social Democratic Party, is an epidemiologist who often advocated against loosening the steps taken to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Christian Drosten is a prominent German virologist whom the Guardian called Germany’s “face of the coronavirus crisis.” Hans-Joachim Schnellnhuber, a German climatologist, is the former chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change.
2) Franz Werfel was an Austrian novelist, born 1890 in Prague (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and died in exile, in 1945 in Beverly Hills. Höret die Stimme or Jeremias appeared in 1937.
3) Thilo Sarrazin is a German politician, formerly a member of the Social Democratic Party and until 2010 a member of the Executive Board of the Bundesbank, became a controversial figure with the publication of his book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself), critical of immigration policies and multiculturalism.